Unbearable Burden of Expectations
Having raised hopes to unrealistic levels, Modi has to re-emphasise the Sangh’s majoritarian agenda.
The spectacular electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has been perceived as a personal triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It has raised the expectations of the poor for a better future. Given the direction of this government’s economic policies, the creation of new employment opportunities will pose huge challenges. Modi will thus have no choice but to fall back on the hyper-nationalist Hindu majoritarian agenda traditionally espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). His confidence that the 2019 general elections will see him emerge as an even stronger “supreme leader” of the “second republic of India” is predicated on the disarray in the ranks of his political opponents who would find it difficult to unite and put one’s finger on sites of resistance to his hegemonistic influence.
BJP candidates won in over 80% of the assembly constituencies in the country’s most populous state where one out of six Indians reside. For many of UP’s voters, Modi represented “hope” of a better future. His image as an energetic and incorruptible leader with no family to favour clearly struck a chord among a large number of the poor. Never since 1971, when Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her popularity after the creation of Bangladesh, has a single individual so totally dominated the Indian polity as Modi. Never has a prime minister so actively and energetically campaigned in state elections as Modi did on this occasion. Never has a political party in UP so completely and so blatantly excluded from its scheme of things the Muslims who comprise almost a fifth of the state’s population. The message to the Muslims was clear: since you are not going to vote for the BJP in any case, why should we even contemplate putting up a single Muslim candidate?
Modi and his trusted lieutenant BJP President Amit Shah, who efficiently micromanaged the elections, well understand the vagaries of the “first past the post” electoral system that also means “winner takes all” or “loser loses everything” (or almost). The BJP’s electoral victory in Uttarakhand was as decisive as it was in UP. Unlike the latter, the polity in Uttarakhand has been bipolar with the Congress and the BJP winning alternate elections since the state was carved out of UP in 2000. The states where assembly elections took place are different from one another in many respects, but the common factor this time was that incumbent governments lost power. Anti-incumbency sentiments were least prevalent in Manipur where Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress party was chief minister for three successive five-year terms. In Manipur, and also in Goa, the Congress leadership (or whatever remains of it) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory because of its sheer incompetence and its inability to match the machinations and wheeling-and-dealing skills that the BJP has learnt over the years from the Congress itself.
In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)–BJP coalition was expected to lose the elections after 10 years in power and it did, despite the fact that SAD and BJP together got a higher share of the votes than the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which won a few extra seats. The new player in the state was very disappointed with its performance. A substantial section of those who had voted for the SAD–BJP combine in the last two elections preferred the Congress to the AAP for, among other things, the latter’s alleged proximity to “militants,” its Delhi-centrism and its inexperience. Interestingly, the one issue that did not evidently have much of an impact (if any) on voters in Punjab was notebandi or demonetisation. In UP, however, Modi has been widely credited with converting what was seen as a self-inflicted economic liability into a political asset. Why?
In his last campaign speech in UP, the Prime Minister significantly remarked that although he can commit mistakes (galtiyan), his intention (niyat) should not be doubted. Demonetisation will make little or no difference to the black economy nor will it check the use of counterfeit currency by terrorists. India will take its time to become a “less cash”-dependent society. But where Modi confounded his critics was his skills in messaging. It was an epiphanic moment for the opponents of demonetisation. The Prime Minister’s demagoguery was at its best. Notebandi became the great equaliser that saw the poor, the middle classes and some rich people as well waiting in the same queue before a bank branch. Its immense political symbolism was lost on many of us who highlighted only its disruptive economic impact. Life was always tough for the poor but Modi peddled the perception that some among the rich were now being forced to experience and share some of their discomfort. This worked better in a relatively economically backward state like UP where aspirations are more pronounced than in the agriculturally prosperous state of Punjab.
Demonetisation certainly hurt the poor much more than the rich but its critics (including those who have written for this publication) clearly underestimated his messianic zeal in selling the unprecedented move as one that was “intended” to help the economically underprivileged. Much has been remarked about the similarity between “capitalist” Modi’s authoritarian ways and those of “socialist” Indira Gandhi. But there are important differences. The garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) slogan propelled to popularity the “only man” in the Congress party who had split her party twice, nationalised much of the country’s banking system and abolished privy purses for princes. The new rhetoric of the Prime Minister is not about removal of poverty but of offering opportunities for a relatively better life. For sometime now, just as the nationalism of the RSS and the BJP has been linked to the so-called Hindu identity of 80% of the Indian population, the Hindutva agenda of the Sangh Parivar has been cleverly coupled with “development.” Even as Modi says he does not want to offer “doles” to the poor but give them jobs, he has sought to improve the implementation of welfare schemes (from providing subsidised cooking gas to opening zero-balance bank accounts) that were initiated by predecessor regimes. The difference, once again, is reflected in the novel slogans.
The structural logic of capitalism in this country and elsewhere is a sharpening of inequalities and jobless growth. As inflationary pressures pick up and the private sector finds it harder to create jobs in comparison to growing by replacing labour with capital, Modi will find it difficult to fulfil his promises of ushering in achhe din. As more realise that the promise of the good times to come is unrealistic, Modi is certain to step up his party’s either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us polarising line. Suppression of free expression through intimidation will be rationalised in national/anti-national terms. In order to gain popularity, he could seek to enforce a uniform civil code (in the name of helping Muslim women from the oppression of triple talaq) and reservation of seats for women in legislatures. The BJP seems set to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha after the 2019 general elections and attempts may even be made to amend the preamble to the Constitution to omit words like secularism and socialism.
Supporters of the BJP have been vocal about interpreting the verdict in UP as a defeat of caste-oriented identity politics. This is simplistic. Many non-Jatav Dalits did not go along with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Non-Yadavs belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) said the Samajwadi Party (SP) government had been partial towards Yadavs. While traditional supporters of the BSP and the SP did not desert their parties, the BJP’s carefully calculated caste combinations worked. It was successful in stitching alliances with smaller caste-based groups. The near-term political future of BSP supremo Mayawati appears bleak. She may not be able to hold on to her Rajya Sabha seat. Former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav too will take a long time to recover the ground that slipped from under his feet so easily and contain the damage that the internecine family feud did to the SP.
As for Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi the less said the better for he still appears to be in a state of denial about the reasons for the humiliating defeat suffered by his party which has been replaced by the BJP as the dominant party in India. No credit can be given to him for his party’s electoral victory in Punjab. Can the Congress revive, get rid of the coterie which shields the Gandhi–Nehru family from criticism and build a grass-roots campaign from scratch? The chances seem doubtful. But the Congress does not have a choice unless it wants to fade into oblivion even more rapidly. But wait! Despite all its talk about a Congress-mukt Bharat, the BJP desperately needs the Congress and Rahul as its principal “other.”
Where do the BJP’s political opponents go from here? The future of AAP, after its poor performance in Punjab and its inability to register its presence in Goa, will be put to a severe test during the forthcoming municipal elections in Delhi for which the BJP has not given tickets to a single sitting councillor. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal will have to seriously reconsider his pan-Indian ambitions and decide if he should rebuild bridges with those who left him complaining about his megalomania. The BJP is certain to push very hard to replace the left in West Bengal and emerge as the principal opponent of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The state could become the next battleground of ugly political violence, which could take a communal turn. It would be simplistic to believe that all political forces opposed to the BJP can easily come together to form a Bihar-like mahagathbandhan or grand alliance. The SP and the BSP, the left and the TMC, the factions of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam will not find it easy to sink their differences to unite against a common political adversary. The Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar could well emerge as a consensus leader for the anti-BJP opposition. He is surely thanking his lucky stars that he took his time criticising demonetisation, that too in a muted manner.
Getting rid of their despondency would pose a huge challenge for those opposed to Modi. There is every possibility that the BJP will perform well in the coming elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Even as Modi seeks to divert attention from his unfulfilled promises in the time to come by re-emphasising Hindutva and his dreams of a better future, the difficulties that will be experienced by his adversaries in coming together will work in his favour.
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